Winnie’s short curls waved in the hot air. The ground was hot. The air was humid. She looked up at the figure beside her. Death looked back. A small smile spread across his face. Silence filled the space between them.
“You’re early,” Death finally said.
Alexander Martin crossed the street, his mind swirling with thoughts. He wiped away the tears building up under his round glasses. He stared down at his sneakers, anger and shame churning in his chest. In the distance, a horn sounded, growing closer yet staying in the back of Alex’s mind. His feet hit the pavement, one after the other, moving quickly but not quickly enough. Brakes screeched next to him, and he turned to see headlights inches from his face. His mind slowly processed the situation around him, but he felt the impact of the car slamming into his body before he could reach a single conclusion.
Alex awoke to find darkness surrounding him and a pit in his chest. He looked down at himself. Nothing had changed, except for his surroundings. He walked around, unsure what had happened. His last memory was of the car coming towards him. He put the clues together; he wasn’t at home, or school, and he had just been hit by a moving vehicle. Could he be in a coma? Or dead? The thought filled him with terror, and fear filled his bones, making his legs shake. His head spun, and he sat down on the cool ground, curling up and letting hot tears run down his cheeks and onto his jeans.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, warm and comforting in an eerie kind of way. He looked up to meet the eyes of a tall man wearing a black and red cloak. His eyes were golden, his face obscured in darkness. “Alexander,” he boomed. “Welcome to the afterlife.”
Alex stood, wiping his tears away with the sleeve of his jumper. “What’s happening to me?” he whispered. He studied the man’s attire, his face, his voice, his demeanor. He was terrifying, yet somehow comforting. Maybe anything could be comforting in this predicament.
“Think of yourself as an angel now,” the man said. “I am a spirit left to guide those who enter our world and send them on their way. That is your job, but for the living. You will be assigned a human to protect.”
“Protect?” Alex repeated. “From what?”
The man’s expression darkened. “Demons. Angry spirits setting out to avenge themselves. Spirits with a dangerous amount of power to wield.” He gave Alex a reassuring look. “Don’t worry. Such things are rare and can be resolved easily. Now that you’re caught up, let’s find you a human.” He walked off, as Alex struggled to keep up.
“Wait!” He cried. “Can the human hear me? See me? What if I mess up? What if I ruin their life?” His voice trailed away. As the person paused, the room began to twist and turn like a camera struggling to focus on an object. He looked in every direction in an attempt to make sense of what was happening. A small room came into focus, with hardwood floors covered in clothing, and a desk overflowing with books and papers. On the center of the floor sat a young girl, maybe fifteen or sixteen, with a notebook opened on her lap and a pencil grasped tightly in her hand. A quick look around showed the spirit in the ominous cloak had left. He was on his own.
Alex sat cross-legged on the floor next to her. The room was humid, a small fan on the desk blowing the girl’s short brown curls into her face. Her walls were a light yellow color, paint chipping and falling to the ground in some places. Small pencil marks and drawings covered the faded paint, barely noticeable from far away. She wore a light yellow blouse made of a thin, soft material. A halo of shoulder-length brown hair sat on her head in thick curls. Bangs nearly covered her eyes, but small flecks of green shot out at Alex every once and awhile. Her brow was furrowed in concentration, her eyes narrowed and shoulders tense.
All of a sudden, she jumped to her feet, leaving the notebook open on the floor. She paced, her bare feet making the floorboards creak with every agitated step. Alex watched, intrigued. She paused and stared at a crack, next to the window covered by a small wire screen, in the wall. He stood next to her and stared at the wall, listening to the sounds of birds chirping in the distance and the girl’s heavy breathing. He turned to face her, a determined look on his face. Slowly, he reached out his arm to touch her. His hand seemed to go right through her without touching her at all.
She remained in the same position, completely unfazed. Alex looked down at his hand in disappointment and crossed the room to the desk. He plopped down on the floor in frustration, letting out a defeated sigh. His head knocked against the desk, but he felt no pain where he had hit the hard wooden object. A flurry of papers fell from the top of the desk and landed on the ground, making a small whooshing noise. The girl spun around in shock, looking around the empty room. Her eyes fell on Alex and quickly moved away, scanning the rest of the floor. She looked afraid, distrustful. Alex felt a small pang in his chest. She looked just like — no, better not to dwell on that. Not now, at least.
“That’s weird,” she whispered. Sitting down, she organized the papers into a small pile, then stood to put them back on the desk. Alex looked at the abandoned pencil and notebook on the floor and inspiration struck him. He began writing, quickly and quietly to ensure that she wouldn’t see him writing. By the desk, she was rearranging books and papers and creating a great amount of noise, just enough to conceal his pencil scratches. When he finished writing, he set the pencil aside and sat in the corner, watching. She grabbed the pencil and resumed her writing, pausing when she found his writing.
Hello, it read. I’m Alex. Sorry for dropping your papers. There’s no way to make this sound normal, but I died. Now I’m here, protecting you, and I’m completely lost. You can’t hear me or see me. But I’m here, and I’d rather not be alone in death as well as life.
She looked around in horror, and Alex shuddered in his corner. Small tears welled in the corners of her eyes, and she wiped them away furiously. Shame burned like an oven in Alex’s chest. He stood and retreated into the dark corners of his mind where he could forget about all the misfortune that had befallen him.
Alex spent a week learning about her. He didn’t attempt to communicate with her, but he could tell she was still curious by the way she waited for words to appear when she sat down to write or turned excitedly at any small sound. He learned her name was Winnie, she was sixteen, and she didn’t have many friends. She spent a great deal of time writing and drawing. She would write about her aspirations and thoughts and anything else that occurred in her life. She wrote about how she had moved from New York City to Columbus, Ohio, a small suburban haven away from the city life she was used to. She had lived in Columbus for four months.
One cool August day, Winnie was sitting on her porch watching birds fly above. Alex sat next to her, feeling very uncomfortable in the same yellow jumper he had been wearing since he died. He hadn’t figured out how to change his appearance yet. They sat in silence, until finally Winnie let out a frustrated sigh. “I know you’re here. Do something if you’re here. Show me a sign or something like that.” She pushed her hair away from her forehead, her eyes glimmering with excitement. Alex searched for some way to alert her of his presence. His eyes fell on a small rock sitting on the sidewalk, about the size of a nectarine. He picked it up, tossing it into the center of the cul-de-sac where Winnie’s house sat. Her eyes widened like a deer caught in headlights, and she ran after the rock. She held it in her hand, smiling widely. “I knew it,” she said. “I knew you were here.”
Alex smiled, her happiness spreading to him. She tossed the rock up and down, watching its journey intently. He barely noticed the world around him turning back to black, until it was all around him. He spun around, confused and scared.
“Winnie!” he shouted. He yelled her name again, then felt a cold hand turn him around. It was a boy, similar to him. He had an evil glint in his eyes, something malicious and almost demonic. Alex was taken aback and stepped away from him. “Who are you?”
The boy grinned. “Why, I’m shocked you don’t remember me. I certainly remember visiting you in your last moments.” He twisted and changed form, and suddenly resembled Winnie, though less joyful. “I’m a spirit, I died like you. You remind me of myself quite an amount, actually. Except you obey the rules.” He waved his hand and an image of Winnie appeared into darkness. “She’s not worth your time. You see, everyone says that she needs you, but she doesn’t. People die every day, they can replace you. Why not have some fun?”
Alex looked at the boy, shocked. Sure, he enjoyed looking after Winnie, but was it worth it? Besides, Winnie couldn’t even see him. “What do you mean, you visited me?”
He smiled slyly. “Well, I always love watching angry or troubled humans. You seemed plenty troubled that day.”
“What’s your name?” Alex asked.
“I used to be Benjamin,” he said, “though nobody has called me by that in centuries.”
Alex considered his words. “Is that when you died? Centuries ago?”
The boy nodded. “War,” he said solemnly. Alex looked at his appearance more closely, noticing for the first time that he was dressed in older-looking clothing — clothing covered in dirt and blood that had most likely been worn on a battlefield. Alex felt his blood churn just looking at the boy and picturing how his last moments must have been. “Anyways,” Benjamin said, clearing his throat, “we’re not here to talk about me. Nor are we here to talk about you. I’ve brought you here to talk about this girl you’ve been assigned.”
“Her name is Winnie,” Alex interjected.
“This is why I’m here,” Benjamin said. “You’re becoming attached to her. It’s rather pitiful to watch. You need to stop pretending that you’re still alive, because you’re not.”
“What are you suggesting I do?”
“Prove to me you aren’t becoming more attached than you should,” Benjamin said. “Prove you won’t go down the same paths I watched you take before.” Their surroundings began to twist and turn, Benjamin’s appearance becoming blurry and unfocused. Slowly, Winnie’s house appeared with her sitting on the stoop as if she had never moved. He raced towards her, feeling like his feet were stuck in quicksand. He reached the step where she sat and sat down, breathing heavily. Next to him, Winnie stared at the sky, lost in thought.
“Winnie?” Alex said tentatively, knowing fully she wouldn’t hear him. “Are you there, somewhere? I’m in trouble. I don’t know what to do. I’m scared of becoming attached to you. I’m scared of trusting Benjamin. I’m scared.” He covered his face with his hands and shook his head. “I’m lost, completely and utterly lost.”
Winnie looked in his direction in confusion. “Alex?” she whispered. “I feel as though I can hear someone talking in the back of my mind, but I don’t know whether to trust it.”
Alex looked up in surprise. “Could it be because you know I’m here? Because you’re more open minded and welcomed to the idea of communicating with me?” He stood, energy and excitement coursing through him. He looked down at his body, which had begun to become slightly transparent the longer he spent as a spirit. He closed his eyes and concentrated, trying to make himself solid again by some random chance. “Please work,” he whispered, “God, please let this work.”
He heard a small gasp from Winnie’s direction, and opened his eyes to see her staring at him, her eyes wide and full of wonder. He looked down at his body, which was no longer see-through. She stood and walked towards him, a smile spreading across her face. He felt a tingling, excited feeling in his stomach.
“Hello, Alex,” she said, extending her hand for him to shake. “Nice to finally meet your acquaintance.”
“What happened to you? Why are you here? What’s death like?” Winnie asked intently. The pair were sitting on the floor of Winnie’s room, a bag of chips open between them. Alex tried to pick one up, but he felt lightheaded and decided against it. He was already pushing his limits by remaining somewhat visible.
“I got hit by a car,” Alex replied.
“Did you see it coming? Did you try to get away?”
“I was thinking about something,” Alex answered, feeling uncomfortable. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
“What were you thinking about?” Winnie pressed.
“My girlfriend,” Alex blurted. “Anyways, why don’t you tell me about yourself?”
“I’m Winnie, I’m sixteen, I just moved here from New York City because my parents got divorced and my mom wanted to get away from the city life. Besides, she has family here. I have no friends yet, but hopefully I’ll make some. I would assume you already know some of these things after watching me.”
Alex nodded along as she spoke, every word reminding him of his life. He had spent it in a small corner of Manhattan for his entire life, one nearly absent of cars and teenagers. He had gone to a high school fairly nearby, about thirty minutes by cab depending on traffic. He had been standing just outside the school when she had approached him, her long brown curls blowing in the wind, her lips painted a bright red. Guilt was evident on her face, though she was trying hard to hide it. She gave him a hug, short and emotionless.
“Jen!” came a voice from behind them. She pulled away to face a tall, attractive boy in a basketball jersey. She skipped over to him with a glowing smile on her face and kissed his cheek. A red smear of lipstick remained where her lips had rested. Alex felt a dull pang in his chest, a feeling of betrayal and loneliness filling him. He started away, his eyes to the ground, tears welling.
Then pain, immense pain. And then darkness. Then Winnie, who was now staring at him with a concerned look. “Memories,” Alex whispered. “They resurface sometimes.” Her hair was just as curly as Jen’s, though a quarter of the length. Her face was free of makeup, with only her freckles and the occasional spot of acne. He reached out to touch one of her curls, but he barely felt the hair against his skin. He wiped his eyes, though no tears had formed. “I don’t understand,” he whispered. “I can do certain things, insignificant things, like walk and talk, yet I’m disconnected still. I’m here, but I’m not truly here. It’s like Benjamin said, I’m not alive anymore.”
“Who’s Benjamin?” Winnie asked.
“He’s a ghost,” replied Alex. “He travels around, trying to wreak havoc on humans and ghosts alike. I don’t know much about him yet, but I’m not sure if I trust him.”
“Of course you shouldn’t trust him!” Winnie cried. “He could be plotting with the devil or something.”
“No one has mentioned the devil,” Alex mumbled. “Heck, I don’t even know if he exists. At least not in this part of the afterlife.” He considered the figure that had met him when he first entered the afterlife. Could he have been a devil of sorts? He seemed fairly opposed to devils, though.
Winnie shuddered. “This whole thing gives me the creeps. I don’t like the sound of this Benjamin character. I suggest you keep your distance.” Alex nodded, trying to reassure her. He decided it wouldn’t be wise to tell Winnie what Benjamin had told him.
That night, Alex went outside to walk around the neighborhood. He relaxed and allowed himself to be invisible as he explored, not wanting to be suspicious. After circling the block a few times, he returned to see Winnie’s mother sitting on the steps, talking on the phone. The door was closed. Alex was stuck. He drew closer, catching small bits of conversation.
“How’s dad doing?” She asked. “Are you enjoying the summer? When does school start again?” as she nodded and conversed, Alex sat down next to her to try and listen to the person on the other end. It was a girl with a high-pitched, hysterical voice. She sounded as if she had been crying, or still was. “I know it’s hard, sweetie,” the woman replied. “It’s always hard to lose someone, especially someone so close. I wish Winnie and I could be there to comfort you and pay our respects, though we didn’t know him as well as you did. You dated for quite awhile, after all.”
Alex’s legs went numb, and he tried to steady himself on the side of the house. Millions of thoughts spun his mind like a record. “I loved him, I really did. He was so sweet. It’s high school, everyone experiments. I can’t help but feel it’s my fault he died. He wouldn’t have gone storming off if not for me. He wouldn’t have been staring at the ground instead of the street.”
His heart was beating faster and faster, and panic grabbed his heart and squeezed it. He found it hard to breathe, or think, or function properly.
“They’re talking about me,” he gasped. “She’s talking to Jen. Winnie is Jen’s sister. That’s why I got assigned to her; her sister is overwhelmed with guilt. I’ve broken a family that’s broken enough on its own.” He paced the porch, no longer paying attention to whether he could be seen. He opened the door and stormed in, scaling the stairs and entering Winnie’s room. She looked up groggily when he entered.
“Alex?” she said. “What’s going on?”
“Your sister,” Alex said. “I’ve ruined your sister’s life.”
“What do you mean?” Winnie said.
“I dated your sister,” Alex whispered, breathless. “She cheated on me and I went storming off. I got hit by a car, and she’s driving herself mad with guilt.”
Winnie’s eyes were wide and full of sadness. She reached for Alex, but before she could the world had spun and twisted back to a black emptiness. In front of Alex stood Benjamin, a big smile on his face. “I must admit,” he laughed, “that was one of the best things I’ve witnessed.”
Alex walked towards the boy and punched him across the face. He fell to the ground, crying out in pain and anger.
“How could you?” Alex yelled. “Why, why do you feel so happy watching someone drown in their misery? Why do you prey on me in life and death? And Winnie! What did she do to you?”
Benjamin clutched his eye. “Don’t you see? I was forced into a war I didn’t want to fight, sent to my death in a battlefield. I wasn’t given a chance at life. No love, no happiness. So I see you, a boy with everything I ever longed for but had stolen from me. And you waltz around taking this for granted. And you have the audacity to try and act alive again! Winnie will never love you, because she is alive and you aren’t. So don’t you see? I do this because I despise you, Alexander. I despise you from the very depths of my soul; if you weren’t dead, I would kill you.”
Alex looked at him, anger pulsing in his chest. “What are you going to do, then?
Benjamin thought for a moment, then grinned maliciously. “I can hurt the people you love.” He started disappearing, and Alex followed. They appeared next to a somewhat busy street, in the daytime. Winnie was walking down the crosswalk, looking at her phone.
“How did you do that?” Alex exclaimed. “How do you have so much power?”
Benjamin laughed. “I told you to join me, Alexander.” They watched as a truck barreled towards the young girl crossing the street. The driver was on his phone, typing something. He was far over the speed limit. Alex screamed Winnie’s name, and she turned to face him. Her eyes widened, her mouth opened, and his name almost left her lips. Alex ran to her, but Benjamin grabbed his arm. Time seemed to move slower as the light turned yellow, then bright red, like the blood on Benjamin’s shirt.
The horn shook him from his thoughts, and it was so loud the earth seemed to shake beneath him. Winnie turned, her eyes filling with fear and panic as she tried to escape. The truck slammed into her small body and came to a halting stop a few moments later. Emptiness consumed him. It was the same emptiness and hopelessness he’d felt when Jen ran to greet the other boy. Here he was, in the position she had been in, the cause of Winnie’s death but powerless to stop it.
The ground fell away, and darkness devoured him. He was in the same room he had appeared in after death, but something was different. There were people present. The man who had greeted him upon arrival stood a few feet away, a sad look on his face. He refused to meet Alex’s eyes. On the floor beside him, Benjamin was curled up in fear, his face discolored from where Alex had punched him. Alex was proud at this sight.
In the distance, a red light shone, illuminating a small ledge jutting out of the wall. Winnie sat at the top, her feet dangling down into the darkness. A tall figure stood beside her, humanlike in appearance but with an air of magic around him. He wore a shiny golden cape, and scars covered his gnarled face to the point where he no longer looked human. His eyes were black as the night sky, with small flecks of light like stars dancing in his pupils.
“You’re early,” the figure said, a smile spreading across his face. His voice was deep and chilling, yet kind and gentle.
Winnie looked at her sneakers, the wind pushing her hair into her face. “I’m still not sure what’s happening,” she whispered, her voice trembling.
The figure sat down on the ledge, putting his arm around her shoulders. “You’re dead, Winnifred. I am Death, the unseen power your kind try their best to escape. This is my home, my domain, where I send spirits on their way. But some of these spirits are restless. They seek life, and instead bring about death.” He looked at Benjamin, his eyes burning with anger. “It seems a spirit here today had too much power for his own good.”
Winnie looked down, her eyes falling on Alex. “What happens to Alex now?”
Death sighed. “He was supposed to protect you. I spent quite a long time consulting my brother,” he gestured to the figure in the red and black cape, who nodded, “about where to send you. We decided on Winnifred because your fate and that of her family were intertwined, but we didn’t want to be too direct by sending you to her sister. This method is a test to deviate the trustworthy from the untrustworthy and decide which shall be given a happy afterlife. By my own rules, he hasn’t qualified.”
Winnie stood up angrily. “But it’s not his fault I died! It’s his!” She pointed at Benjamin, who buried his head in his hands. “There has to be some other solution.”
Death looked at Alex, pity in his dark eyes. “I suppose we could send Benjamin in his place, but we have a greater issue; you aren’t meant to meet me yet.” He looked over at his brother. “Fate, any ideas?”
Fate tilted his head in thought. “I don’t know of any foolproof way to fix this, but we could always try another way.” He strode over to Alex, reaching out to touch him but deciding against it. “It’s not easy, but it might work.”
“Tell me,” Death said impatiently.
“We could reverse time, using Benjamin as a battery of sorts, and prevent Alex from dying in the first place. This will reverse the timeline. He will die another way, but hopefully we won’t have to see him in a long while,” Fate said. His face fell. “Though you wouldn’t remember Winnie.”
It felt like a slap in the face. Winnie, with whom he had spent countless days, bonding, talking, and more, had become his closest friend, a person he felt as if he had known for his entire life though he had only met her after its end.
“What are we waiting for?” Death cried. “If it’ll work, we have to try immediately.” He disappeared in a cloud of smoke, leaving Winnie alone on the ledge. She dropped about six feet to the ground and ran over to Alex, tears streaming down her face. She hugged him tightly. “I don’t want to forget you,” she sobbed.
“Neither do I,” Alex said, hugging her back. “But you deserve a full life, and I won’t let myself deny you of that.” He pulled away to face her, wiping the tears from her face. A small smile formed at the corners of his mouth. He reached out to touch her, pushing it away from her forehead to show her green eyes. His heart melted thinking of Jen, and how similar they were, though something about Winnie felt different. She made him feel at home, like he had the power to live forever. She was genuine, and full of emotion, and made his thoughts fuzzy and disjointed.
“Alex, Winnie,” Fate said from behind them. “We were about to begin, if you wanted to say a goodbye of sorts.” He turned away from them, as if trying to give them as much privacy as possible in the situation.
Alex turned back to Winnie. He felt anxiety course through his veins, like red-hot snakes eating away at his insides.
“Goodbye, Winnie,” he whispered, planting a small kiss on her forehead. Her face turned red, her eyes soft and full of affection. White light filled the dark room, nearly blinding Alex. He kept his eyes open, squinting through the light to focus on Winnie’s face as it slowly disappeared.
She skipped over to him, a glowing smile on her face, and kissed his cheek. A red smear of lipstick remained where her lips had rested. Alex felt a dull pang in his chest, a feeling of betrayal and loneliness filling him. A small voice in his head told him to shake it off, and he decided to listen.
“Whatever, Jen,” he said. “Life is about experiments, right?” He gave them a glowing smile and walked away from the school, his spirits dampened yet still high.
That night, Jen sent him a text message reading, “Want to hang out? My family is visiting and I don’t want to invite anyone they wouldn’t like.”
Alex smiled at the message, excited at the idea of a new friendship. “Sure,” he replied. After arranging the plans with Jen, he pulled on an old yellow jumper and walked over to her house. He knocked on the door, checking the time on his phone anxiously and adjusting his glasses. Worries swam through his mind. Were his clothes too casual? Too formal? What if her family hated him?
The doorknob turned and the door swung back to reveal a girl about a head shorter than him, hair identical to Jen’s brown curls other than the fact it had been cut into a shoulder-length bob and bangs. Her eyes were green, the color of grass with flecks of brown like the soil it resided in. She wore a pink blouse made of light material and red sneakers. Something about her was familiar to Alex, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
“I’m Alex,” he said. “I’m Jen’s friend. I don’t think we’ve met, have we?”
She shook her head, her hair blowing in her face. Alex felt more memories come back to him, but there was still a barricade preventing them from returning fully. “I’m Winnie,” she said. “I’m Jen’s sister, but I moved to Ohio. I visit every once and awhile.”
Alex nodded. “Well, it’s very nice to meet you. I have a weird feeling we’ve met before, but regardless I’d like to get to know you.”
Winnie laughed. “You know, I had that feeling too. Strange, isn’t it? Anyways, people are probably waiting for me, so I’ll have to go socialize or something.”
Alex smiled, his anxiety calming down ever so slightly. “Mind if I tag along?”
Winnie grinned, her cheeks turning pink. She stepped aside to let Alex in, and the two disappeared into the house, talking like old friends. The door slammed shut behind them, sending an echo down the street. The world operated as normal, everyone moving and interacting seamlessly without any inkling of the change that had taken place. Alex and Winnie’s lives had been entwined by Fate, twisted together with great care. Far in the distance, beyond the realm of the living, he watched proudly at what he had accomplished.